Thoughts on Branded Entertainment

Brands are increasingly shifting their ad spend from broadcast to digital platforms because a) more detailed measurement is available from those platforms than from broadcast and b) because audiences are increasingly shifting their viewing to digital platforms, many of which either allow the audience to skip ads (PVR) or strip the ads out (Netflix, Shomi and CraveTV).

So what to do to capture those online eyeballs?  For a few years now brands have been experimenting with branded entertainment or branded content.  Content can be any non-ad content created around a brand, such as a recipe or web series, while entertainment is specifically scripted content like that web series.  TV people, particularly web series producers, have in turn dabbled with financing from brands resulting in a few crossovers such as the web series “Carmilla” funded by Kotex and produced by Shift2, a division of Shaftesbury.  Many more are contemplating this funding model.

Recently I attended the BCon Expo conference put on by Brunico to bring together brands, agencies and creative to discuss best practices in branded content, to get a better idea of what was going on in this branded content world.  It was eye-opening to watch marketers discover concepts of storytelling that have been known to any form of media content creator since well, forever.   Examples:

  • If the characters are relatable, the audience will watch
  • Begin strong
  • Have a fresh concept
  • Get good at content creation and then optimize the platform (or in other words, adapt the content to the platform)

It seems to me that the advertising industry needs to talk more to people in the television and digital media content industries instead of trying to invent the wheel all over again.

The conference did present an example of that kind of collaboration. Shift2 talked about their latest web series employing what I think of as the “Carmilla” model.  Shift2 convinced the Royal Bank of Canada that a web series was the best way to reach millennials and created the 20 episode web series “V Morgan is Dead”.  Similar to “Carmilla”, “V Morgan” is first a drama series aimed at engaging its audience rather than selling to them.  The sales pitch is delivered with branded extensions on other platforms.  RBC conducted research which demonstrated to them that the strategy worked by driving traffic to RBC sites and increasing brand awareness within the audience.  Unlike “Carmilla” though, which has been renewed twice, RBC has not yet decided if it was successful enough of an experiment to warrant a renewal and a second season.

It is not yet clear whether this model is limited to the millennial demographic or can perhaps be replicated in the kids market or even older adults.  Over lunch brand marketers who I talked to were definitely interested in exploring the model but questioned whether branded entertainment could drive purchase decisions as well as increase brand awareness.

This kind of cross-pollination is of concern though to the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office (“CAVCO”), which has been seeing a trend of more and more branded content on broadcast television.  When does a sponsored television show stop becoming entertainment and instead is advertising, and therefore ineligible for tax credits?  CAVCO has launched a public consultation for assistance with guidelines to ease the process and review for both CAVCO and producers.  In another consultation they are also exploring whether online distribution of linear productions can be a trigger for tax credits (currently a production must be licensed by a broadcaster or theatrical distributor), which would open up web series to the question of entertainment or advertising, in at least certain circumstances.